The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) turns 20 this year. In this blog, Elaine MacDonald, Ecojustice’s healthy communities program director, explains why it’s time to modernize Canada’s cornerstone environmental law.

On March 31, 2020, one of Canada’s most important pieces of environmental legislation will mark its 20th anniversary.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) aims to prevent pollution and protect the environment and human health. The Act sets out rules for preventing and regulating toxic substances, and for managing pollution.

Here at Ecojustice, CEPA is one of the key pieces of legislation upon which we rely when we go to court to fight for a healthy environment for all Canadians. Over the years, Ecojustice lawyers have used the Act to demand the federal government crack down on plastic pollution, lay criminal charges against Volkswagen for unlawfully importing and vehicles rigged with an emissions-cheating device, and more.

But two decades after CEPA first came into force, it’s long overdue for an update.

The need to modernize CEPA

Ecojustice has spent years fiercely advocating for a modernized CEPA.

Together with our partners at Environmental Defence Canada and David Suzuki Foundation, we say updating the Act makes common sense: In order to effectively protect people and the planet, Canadians need a law that meets 21st century threats with 21st century science.

In 2016 and 2017, Ecojustice participated in a thorough review of CEPA undertaken by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, providing both oral testimony and written submissions.  Thanks in part to Ecojustice’s extensive contributions, the standing committee released a report in 2017 with 87 substantial recommendations to improve the Act and its implementation.

The right to a healthy environment

Perhaps most notably, the committee recommended the government amend the Act to officially “include a right to a healthy environment.”

The right to a healthy environment encompasses every person’s fundamental right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, consume safe food, access nature, and know about pollutants and contaminants in the environment.

At least 155 countries already recognize the right to a healthy environment in law. In Canada, however, our legislation remains lacking.

While Ecojustice maintains that a safe climate and healthy environment are key to ensuring every Canadian’s Charter-protected rights to life, liberty, and security of the person, Recognizing the right to a healthy environment in CEPA would still be a significant step forward for protecting the health of people living in Canada and promoting equality.

Shockingly, the World Health Organization says environmental hazards are partially or fully responsible for an estimated 30,000 premature deaths in Canada every year. Recognizing the right to a healthy environment in federal law could help address this high human cost — not to mention billions of dollars in preventable health care costs every year.

Unfortunately, Canada’s lax environmental laws also leave certain populations more vulnerable than others. This includes pregnant women, children, the elderly, people with low-incomes and/or unstable housing, Indigenous communities, and other vulnerable communities. Recognizing every person’s right to a healthy environment would be one step towards addressing these injustices.

Modernizing CEPA makes sense — so what’s the delay?

In 2018,  the former Minister of Environment and Climate Change responded to Ecojustice and our partners’ push for CEPA reform by letting us know that we shouldn’t expect a bill to amend CEPA until “as soon as possible in a future parliament” – i.e. right now!

Shortly after winning his second mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signaled he’s willing to stick to this commitment.

Trudeau’s mandate letter to current Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, instructs the minister to “work with the Minister of Health to better protect people and the environment from toxins and other pollution, including by strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.”

It’s a promising move. However, we’re working with a minority government that’s juggling competing priorities. Since 1963, the average amount of time a federal minority government has managed to hold power in Canada is just 24 months.

That makes decisive action and speed of the essence on the CEPA file. There’s no guarantee this government will introduce and pass crucial updates to CEPA before the clock runs out on this mandate.

That’s why Ecojustice lawyers and scientists are actively working with our allies inside and outside the government to make CEPA modernization a priority.

Together, we’re calling on the Trudeau government to amend CEPA so the act:

  • Recognizes our right to a healthy environment and defends Canada’s most vulnerable populations
  • Ensures dangerous chemicals are banned until they are proven to be safe
  • Mandates faster, more efficient regulatory timelines
  • Reduces our exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals
  • Meaningfully informs and engages the public in decision-making

After 20 years, Canadians deserve a modernized environmental protection act to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the communities where we live, work, and play.